With the onset of peace after the Great War, sport resumed throughout Europe in 1919. When the Football League met on the 10th March 1919 at the Grand Hotel in Manchester, it was decided to increase the top two divisions from 20 teams each to 22. Derby County and Preston North End were already promoted after finishing in the Second Division’s two automatic promotion spots during the 1914-15 season.
Chelsea, relegated to the Second Division in the 1914-15 campaign by finishing second from bottom, were automatically reinstated into the top flight and took the 21st spot in the newly enlarged First Division. Yet the 22nd and final spot would go to a vote. Tottenham, who finished below Chelsea at the foot of the First Division, went against Second Division sides Arsenal, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Hull City, Nottingham Forest and Wolves.
Arsenal’s influential chairman, Sir Henry Norris, was adamant the Gunners would win the vote. His cause would receive a helping hand via James Catton, the editor of the Athletic News, writing under the pseudonym Tityrus. Arguably the most influential football writer in Britain, the Athletic News has a large following in the United Kingdom.
Catton on January 13th, 1919 cited the 1915 Easter Sunday match-fixing scandal between Liverpool and Manchester United as justification for one of the two relegated teams to be reinstated. Yet instead of Spurs being chosen, Catton mentioned Arsenal. He wrote:
“The Arsenal have a case for consideration as the oldest League club in London, and one of the most enterprising in the face of difficulties which would have appalled most directors.”
Catton and Norris knew each other well – with the former attending games at Highbury. Catton’s words paid off, as Arsenal won the 22nd spot in the First Division by winning 18 votes to Tottenham’s 8. A spot in the top flight, which Arsenal would not relinquish to this day, came at the cost of a born rivalry with Spurs that would endure and harden for over a hundred years to this very day.
Allegations would persist of bribery against Norris in how he got Arsenal to be elected to the First Division. Though the allegations were unproven, Norris did thank Catton personally in a letter to the editor. Stepping away from his director role at Fulham, Norris focused on Arsenal on the pitch and being an MP off it. Though part of a parliamentary democracy in his duties as a Conservative MP, Norris operated more of an autocracy in Arsenal.
Despite appointing Leslie Knighton as manager in July 1919, it was Norris who controlled everything. The owner’s decisions were odd – Knighton could not spend more than £1,000 on players, buy anyone that weighed under 11 stone and even force the manager to gut their scouting system. Norris was an imposing figure, with Knighton in his 1948 autobiography “Behind the Scenes in Big Football” detailing just how so:
“I have never met his equal for logic, invective and ruthlessness against all who opposed him. When I disagreed with him at board meetings and had to stand up for what I knew was best for the club, he used to flay me with words until I was reduced to fuming, helpless silence.”
Despite Knighton trying to work around these restrictive conditions, the Gunners unsurprisingly were unable to have a successful season in the first half of the 1920s, routinely finishing in the bottom half of the table. The straw that broke the camel’s back for Knighton was when Arsenal finished a lowly 20th in the 1924-25 season.
His patience gone, Norris sacked Knighton. Now no longer an MP, Norris used Arsenal’s growing riches to lure the best manager in the land to the vacant job – Huddersfield Town’s Herbert Chapman. First Division champions in the 1924-25 season, Norris would have been impressed after Huddersfield smashed the Gunners 5-0 in the league on the 14th of February 1925.
Offering £2,000 per year (roughly around £155,000 today), twice his wage at Huddersfield, Chapman was persuaded to become Arsenal’s new manager. His first season was a success, finishing 2nd behind Huddersfield Town, aided by 33 goals by Jimmy Brain and 21 from Charlie Buchan.
Yet Norris restricted Chapman’s request to bolster his team and suffered the following season by finishing 11th in the league and losing 1-0 to Cardiff City in the 1927 FA Cup Final. It was at that time Norris’ decisions would begin his downfall, which all started due to a forged cheque.
William Hall, a director at Arsenal, found out Norris had illicitly used Chapman’s signature to buy the reserve team bus via a cheque. Refusing Hall’s suggestion to resign, Hall would himself resign, only for Norris to open legal action against him and alert the attention of the Football League.
The Football League offered Norris a choice – resign from Arsenal in exchange for no investigation by the organisation – an offer Norris took by stepping down on the 1st of July. Yet Hall had other ideas – going above the Football League to petition the Football Association (FA) to look at Arsenal financially. Things began to unravel for Norris, as the FA charged him with illegal payments over an eight-year period – counts against him included a signing-on fee for Clem Voysey, legal costs for Jock Rutherford, a cut of Bert White’s transfer to Blackpool in 1923.
Norris failed to have the findings of the FA’s investigation made private, with the Daily Mail detailing it all for its readers across the country. Norris would be banned from football for life on the 29th of August 1927; causing him to sue the Daily Mail and FA for libel. Though he would drop the charges against the Mail in 1928, Norris wouldn’t against the FA. However, the High Court ruled against Norris, finding “no evidence of malice” from the FA against him.
With Norris out of football permanently, it left a vacuum at Arsenal, one that was filled by Herbert Chapman. His tenure as manager would become one of the most successful periods for the Gunners. An FA Cup during the 1929-30 season followed by two league titles in 1930-31 and 1932-33.
As for Norris, he would die of a heart attack on the 30th of July 1934 at the age of 69. Though few today know his name, Norris’ actions throughout the early 20th Century directly and indirectly impacted several of London’s football clubs that linger to this day. So, the next time you watch Chelsea play a game at Stamford Bridge, watch Fulham take on Arsenal, or catch a North London derby between Arsenal and Spurs – think of Sir Henry Norris.
By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ColorSport